Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins, by Margaret Engel and Allison Engel. Directed by Jenna Ware.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"When people laugh they open their ears, and they hear."
Raised in Texas, died in Texas. That could encompass the life of Molly Ivins if she had not intruded on our national conscience through her skillful reportage, her brilliant and observant mind and her fine-old Texas-style use of humor and gall in calling a spade a spade and not meaning a black person.
After dubbing the recent President from Texas, during his former life as a Texas Governor "Shrub" she commented on his role in Federal politics "however you put it, George W. Bush is a wholly owned subsidiary of corporate America." It was that sort of incisive and deliberate political writing that endeared Ivins to Americans well outside of her Texas haunts.
In a new play about the reporter and columnist, Red Hot Patriot, we meet the woman herself toward the very end of her life. She is at her desk in the newspaper office trying to write a column about her father, a man whom she has been unable to fathom for her entire life. She has gotten down three sentences and is stumbling about the rest of it. A cancer survivor herself, she is being assaulted by news stories from her own personal history on the AP machine and each one inspires her chatter. It isnít until late in the one-act, 93 minute play that she realizes the awful truth about her own status. She has died. Even this doesnít stop her from laying down a few more insightful remarks and that, it seems to me, is true Molly Ivins.
In this production, well directed by Jenna Ware on the Elayne P. Bernstein stage at Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, MA, Molly is played by company founder and goddess Tina Packer. It is hard to be too critical of Packer who is a good actress who somewhat sacrificed that side of her career to run a large company that has given so much back to the community over the years. Her appearances in other works, recently, has helped to reinstate the actress-side of her work and her venturing into a character so completely American as Ivins is a risk a good actress should take on with panache. I cannot quibble too much with her accent. British overtakes Texan and the peculiarities of both coming out of one mouth is the result. You get used to the oddness of it quickly and the words she spouts take precedence. Thatís all you need to know about that aspect of her work.
In the attitude of the character she really ranks supreme. Her Molly has the swagger and joie that the real Ivins had. Her laughter is on target and her anger is imbued with the spirit of the real woman. She moves through the survey of Ivinsí life as though truly reminiscing and not acting and that alone is a triumphant combination of talents. Packer gives the impression of having disappeared into Ivins and on those rare occasions when the actress is visible it really doesnít matter for it seems as though Molly has taken a deep breath, stepped back to take a look at herself and then decided to continue as though nothing has happened.
"Hate has taken over the conversation," she comments at one point in an open discussion about the state of American politics. It is a point of departure for the witty woman who turns the humorous tale of her life and her work into a personal polemic that is so real and genuine it almost becomes frightening. Therefore, be warned: you may find yourself challenged there in your seat in the audience. Molly Ivins, dead since 2007, may still be finding you out and holding you accountable for your thoughts, feelings and actions. When the play takes this turn, it is as though all hell has broken loose in the newsroom in Texas and, as with Hurricane Irene which was storming her way up the coast on the night I saw this play, you may find devastation all around you.
A comic diversion from the wit and wisdom of Ivins is provided in the semi-silent addition of a copy-boy who appears from time to time to provide Ivins with the latest Associated Press updates. He is played with style and humor by Harrison Wilken and his "heavenly messenger" is a fascinating aspect of the last fifteen minutes of the play.
This is a limited run and Packer is worth the time and effort of getting to Lenox to see the show. I didnít realize how much Iíve missed the commentary of Molly Ivins until I sat down to watch Packer in this play. What I know, now, is how pertinent she was and still is. Thatís all there is to say.
..is it Tina Packer; photo: Kevin Sprague
Red Hot Patriot plays in repertory at the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre at Shakespeare and Company on Kemble Street in Lenox, MA through September 4. For information and tickets go to their website at www.shakespeare.org or call the box office at 413-637-3353.